Finding a Home and School

List prices of homes in Fairfax county in Virginia depend a lot on the zip code. The median price in 22180 (Vienna, VA) is $1.4 million while in 22003 (Annandale, VA), it is $600 K (Data from Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc.). Madison High School in Vienna has 9% of its students coming from low income families while Annandale High School has 52% of its students coming from poor households. What school a child attends is decided by the zone that child lives in. Salvatore Saporito of the College of William & Mary recently examined how the shape of a school zone relates to enrollment segregation by income. His paper published in the American Education Research Journal shows that "school districts with the most irregularly shaped zones have less income segregation than school districts with compact zones."

When something is irregularly shaped, it is usually a sign that someone has spent extra effort in drawing the boundary lines. Take, for instance, the Falcon Pass Elementary School Zone in Houston Texas:

Map showing houses belonging to the top quantile (green) and lowest quantile (red) (Salvatore Saporito. Shaping Income Segregation in Schools: The Role of School Attendance Zone Geography. American Educational Research Journal. First published date: August-14-2017, school's poverty data from NCES 2015.

The school zone shown above is indeed irregularly shaped. It is not compact and therefore not automatic. It is obvious that extra consideration was spent in drawing this zone. The school zone looks like an hour glass and can easily be divided into two parts, north for the wealthy, and south for the poor.  Falcon Pass Elementary School belongs to the Clear Creek District which has a poverty rate of 9 %, yet 31% of the students it serves belong to low-income families. The school's performance on standardized exams is above average:

Data from GreatSchools

The school therefore does well in spite of its highly economically integrated enrollment. On the other hand, school zones drawn in a compact manner are often segregated according to income. Saporito does not provide a specific example, but one school zone in Fairfax county demonstrates this (This is the school my children attend, Mason Crest Elementary School):

Median Household Income (Data USA: Fairfax County) and the Mason Crest Elementary School zone

The school zone, in this case is much more compact than the zone previously shown and when viewed side by side with an income map, the zone pretty much covers only the neighborhoods where the median household income is low. It is therefore not surprising to see that Mason Crest Elementary School has 46% of its students coming from low-income families. This is disproportionately higher compared to the overall poverty level in Fairfax county, only 6%. Fortunately, with this school's deep commitment to education for all, the school's performance on standardized tests are average.

Data from GreatSchools

There is no doubt, however, that Mason Crest teachers still find greater challenges with its high number of poor children. Sadly, the case of Mason Crest Elementary School is the rule and that of Falcon Pass Elementary School is the exception. School zones in the United States, whether it is intentional or not, tend to segregate students according to their family income. 


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